The Sad State of Email for Large Retailers

To a large degree Email has become a wasteland of a marketing channel.  The early days resulted in spam culture due to the ability to contact millions of your customers with content.  The content was the same for all.  But the millions at one time part was a new marketing disruption tool and intoxicating.  The results came and were real, but over time the result of everyone spamming was more spam.  The urge to stand out among the competition led to strategies of increased email frequency.  The same content for the most part but you get it daily now.  Or more!  A lot of empty focus on snazzy subject lines too.  Which do increase open rate over but never ever will produce meaningful sales lift when compared to a control subject line.  Coupons and discounts then became the rage.  This was driven not by consumers or finance but the ability for marketing managers to take credit for a bigger portion of sales.  Because the coupon codes and other data points could now attach specific sales to your email program.  These sales already existed in the data warehouse before but now these custom data points can tie sales to specific marketing teams within retail organizations.  This bubble would pop too.  The decreased margins compared to the incremental sales generated by discount fever weren’t profitable for most.  By the time the analysts figured this out the culture had set in.  You had trained your customers to wait for coupons in email now.  Taking away eyeballs and interest from all the other content related to you brand.

Today email is still a useful channel but at the same time it is a societal joke.  All the illegitimate spam combined with the bad practices of retailers made it this way.  Small businesses still use email very well.  Because their list is small, they know what they want to convey, and their subscribers like and welcome the content.  The most critical tool in all businesses is inter-company email.  But retailers and B2C companies with large customer bases have severe pain points when it comes to using the email channel effectively in 2019.   Achieving nimble personalization using custom email content at a speed relevant to today’s consumer.  They are struggling mightily to graduate from spam.  The problem is the front end of email operations.  Putting the creative content assets together with the differentiated lists of email addresses.  My expertise is on the front end of this process.  Defining, coding, and producing personalized segmentations for large organizations with up to twenty-five million active customers.  The ability to create and run jobs that execute thousands of versions based on segmentation criteria born from analytics and customer insights.  Unfortunately, this data is then passed to the stakeholders at the front end of the email channel and often the result is the slow death of these potentially game changing marketing campaigns.

What is wrong with the front end of the Email channel?  First, by front end I mean the apps, platforms, agencies, and all other functions that need to take the segmented email list data, put it together with content for thousands of versions, and then email those versions to the cumulative total audience of millions.  Those functions still have outdated operations and technology in many organizations.  They were designed for and still operating based on the spam age.  Just getting differentiated creative assets could take months if you are using an agency.  Then you have to transfer the personally segmented data from your data site to the ESP you use.  Sending data dictionaries and more meetings to this partner so they can intake, code, and deploy.  This same ESP that pushes out the millions of your emails needs to follow their protocol.  Most ESPs cannot handle a large retailer that is ready now to send 1000 versions on the same day.  They are paid based on a spam age business model.  You as a marketer could be on weeks of phone calls and get buried in work orders to just execute this once as a test.  At a huge cost.  On top of that there may be another inefficient process to ensure there is proper tracking on engagement on the back end.  The data guys like me need access to in order to evaluate performance.  On top of this other small functions and connections have to be engineered.  Many retailers can’t even get their act together when it comes to mailing 1 email address per customer, if that customer uses multiple email addresses.  The front end of email for organizations with huge customer bases is very messy.  That is kind.  Quarters and years go by with these organizations standing still an email program this is embarrassing.  Everyone wants to achieve the same goal, but the front end bottleneck in the email channel moves at the speed of Congress.

In short, the front end which handles the analytics and operations for using customer data for great personalized email content refreshed at the speed of business has evolved.  We’re there man.  But so many times I have seen all of it die on the front end of the email channel.


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